Friday, September 12, 2014

Hitting Pause on (New) Playwriting

It's nearly 1 a.m. on a Monday night in August, and I find that insomnia is yet again winning the nightly battle that is my quest for sleep. Although much of its power is derived from my physical situation (back pain beyond words), the real power of insomnia is self-doubt. Used against a perfectionist, self-doubt crushes the spirit and causes emotional paralysis.

It was about two hours ago that I realized I needed to reboot my writing. It was time to accept what I've been denying for a couple of weeks: I need to hit pause on writing any new stage plays and devote more energy to the other unfinished works in my life. And, if I do feel the need to start a new project, it should be a screenplay, a short story, or something other than a stage play.

Theater was good to me this year, with three full productions locally. The shows have been good, and the actors, crews, and house teams put everything into making the shows successful. The audiences seemed pleased, even when a critic wasn't. (And one critic not liking the shows isn't too bad, when ticket sales were okay, especially for one show.)

But, I only enjoyed the process sporadically. I haven't loved what I'm doing — and that's a problem. My health, my schedule, and not being more assertive earlier with the shows left me feeling disconnected from my words and the shows. Stretching myself too thin, and not just for theatrical projects (I did too many things, period), and pushing my body too hard was a problem this summer.

Theater is a collaborative medium, especially the development of new works. When that collaboration feels "off" in some way, it is like a relationship you know isn't working out and won't be saved. You realize you were better off as friends rather than teammates on a production. I share the blame for not being a constant presence during new show development, something I should have made a clear, non-negotiable aspect of developing new works.

If I cannot be present for the majority of development, working to fix issues with the script and to improve it, the process isn't fulfilling for me. This is something I feel about theater, exclusively, because of the nature of the medium.

I'm not abandoning theater, nor will I stop trying to get my existing works staged, but I'm going to follow a different path. And because that path won't be easy or likely to lead to many stagings of my works, I'm going to invest my writing energies elsewhere.

Film, I can handle the idea that you sell the script and that's life. Theater shouldn't feel that way. At least historically, it's a writer's medium. You listen to actors and directors, and you might take their suggestions, but the script is yours, as a playwright. You have the final say.

I'm not a great playwright. I'm good. My works need to be workshopped and revised. But, time and energy haven't really permitted that process. Short of directing or co-directing my own works, and self-producing, the limits of local theater aren't going to give me the development process I want or need.

Over the next few years, I'm going to finish and revise some play scripts. I'll send them to contests and theaters, hoping for productions. With more than 30 unproduced works, it isn't as if I lack for scripts to submit. Some are pretty good, and they should be produced. Ideally, I'll get to develop them and make them what they can be.

New works, though? No more plays until other projects are complete and my passion returns. If it isn't at least started, as little as an idea on a piece of paper or in a computer file, it isn't going to be a stage play.

And I do owe the actors, directors, and theatrical companies that staged my works a great deal. They liked my words enough to present them to audiences. That's really an honor and I am thankful. I learned much this summer, and that's a great thing.

It merely happens that one thing I learned about myself is that I need more control as a playwright. That reflects more on my creative needs and process than on the people producing my works for stage.

Screenplays are not stage works, as I mentioned above. You sell the script, and move on. You have to accept that it isn't "your" work. I've written screenplays and had two that production companies asked to read. Then, I stopped writing screenplays and focused on other projects. It is time to get some more screenplays out there and maybe update the ones that didn't make it to the next step.

When I was in college, I would fill a 70-page spiral notebook with poetry every year. I have nearly 1500 poems in those journals. The last journal was filled in 1998. That bothers me, since it isn't that I lost interest in poetry. I have tried, every year or two, to get back to the journals. Something hasn't felt right in 16 years, though.

I have novels started, lots of them, and need to select one and finish it. Just finishing one would be a good thing. I have outlines dating back to fourth grade that were good then and aren't bad now. It bothers me to see the half-written manuscripts, waiting for some attention.

A friend said that just as I stop writing new plays, the existing ones will start to find homes. I'd be okay with that, as long as I remember to assert more control. A lot of my difficulties with new works would be avoided if I had a more assertive personality up front… instead of waiting until I feel sick about things.

Now, I'm off to write some bad poetry.

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